Ash Wednesday, year A,B,C, 2014 (preached March 5, 2014)
first reading: Joel 2:12-19
second reading: 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
gospel reading: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them…”
Tonight we do something quite strange, that might be thought of as contradicting Jesus’ words to us in the gospel.
As I speak, we have just received ashes as an outward sign for all to see. Some might think that we receive these ashes in order to be seen by others.
We might stop at the store on the way home and all would know we’ve been to church, and we might see others with ash and know they’ve been to church too.
Well, if that’s why we’ve come here today and received ashes, then in the words of Jesus, “you HAVE received your reward.”
One of the obstacles Jesus faced in his ministry was the people who observed every little letter of the Law, but had no compassion in their hearts. In Jesus’ time these folks were usually the Pharisees. They were excellent at knowing the Law of God and keeping the LETTER of it, but they often failed at understanding the SPIRIT of the Law. The Pharisees too often followed God’s law, but did NOT have a sense of their own sinfulness, and did not love their neighbor.
This is what God seeks, not merely those who will do the work of the Law, but those who will look to God’s INTENTIONS in the Law.
We receive ashes NOT as an outward sign of holiness to brag about, but as an outward sign of our sinfulness for which we need to repent.
We wear the ash not to say, “Look at me, aren’t I special,” but to say, “Look at me, I am a sinner, and without Christ I am nothing.” We wear the ash not to say, “Look at me, I’ going to cheat death,” but to say, “Look at me I’m being honest about my sin and acknowledge my mortality.”
In our gospel, Jesus isn’t telling us that we shouldn’t do the things he mentions. What he’s telling us is that the focus of our actions should be to strengthen our relationship with God and our neighbors, not only how they make us look to others.
In our gospel reading Jesus isn’t telling us not to give alms. What he wants is for us to examine the reasons WHY we give. Do we give so that we can tell others how good we are to our church? Do we give in such a public way that we need to receive a public thank you? OR do we give because we love God, and want to do our part in carrying out God’s mission to share the gospel with all people?
And how do we pray? Do we pray to strengthen our relationship with the Lord? Or do we pray only when we want something, as if God was our heavenly Santa Claus?
Do we fast or give up something special for Lent purely for our own benefit, and proudly let everyone know the sacrifice we’re making? Or do we keep it to ourselves, knowing that God is the only one who really NEEDS to know?
What reward do we really seek? God’s reward, or the praise of our peers?
The cross, made on the forehead with ash has a double meaning. It reminds us that we are dust and to dust we shall return. But we are also reminded of the cross made on our foreheads at Holy Baptism, and the words spoken then, “Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”
Human rewards are fleeting. The Oscars were just a few nights ago. Millions of people watched. Those in the acting profession were rewarded by their peers. But who will remember ten years from now who won best actor? Who will remember 10 years from now who won best director? And so it is with human honors.
Human accolades may feel good at the moment. Recognition of a job well done by our peers makes us feel proud. This is ok. But these are NOT the things that last.
Because for as many times as we succeed, there are just as many times we fail. The world’s recognition is based on how well we perform.
Those Oscar winners could just as well make a box office BOMB next year.
But the sign made on our foreheads at Holy Baptism, the sign made on our foreheads today, this will NEVER be forgotten.
God’s love for us is unchanging, constant and unconditional. God’s promises are sure, and his love, his forgiveness, his salvation, last more than a day, a week, a decade or a millennium. God’s rewards are FOREVER.